You know, I consider myself fairly clued up in the department of internet security. I mean, I know, recent relationship history might suggest that I’ve learned the hard way. (Some might call it a way paved with much naivete and gullibility.) But please, someone tell me I’m not downright stupid. Please tell me I have some awareness that there are liars and frauds and psycho’s and meanies out there, and you have to be careful who you trust. I know, I KNOW. So I’m doing livid little circles of outrage to have been the victim of an online scam. Or party to it. Bloody hell.
Here’s how it goes. Young Malawian domestic worker and his wife desperately need a place to stay. They’ve been turfed out of their shared room because too many people were staying there. At the beginning of the month.
Don’t get involved, says my father fiercely. This is not your problem. Do not get involved.
Surely we can do something? I say fiercely. What can we do?
This is not a situation anyone wants to see. I think, okay, I have access to resources they don’t. Telephone, internet. I’ll look on gumtree, find a room rental. How hard can it be?
I find a listing that sounds promising. The advertiser’s name is Kashief. He’s not racist or xenophobic, which is better than my non-starter conversation with the Chinese woman in Green Point who “would rather not take blacks”. No, he’s not the owner, but he has an agreement with the owner that he can sublet on short-term bases while the owner decides what he wants to do with the house. The Malawians like it. Bo-Kaap is a funny mix of gangster’s paradise and yuppie heaven, I can’t help thinking. Yes, they’ll take it. Sublease gets signed. The Malawians have half the money. We help them with the balance. Deposit and rental get handed over. They move in. Happy weekend. Malawians saved from sleeping on the street.
Monday comes with a problem around midday. The owner has arrived and kicked the Malawians out.
He can’t do that, says Kashief on the phone. I will come around and make arrangements for them to stay til the end of the month. After all, he says, this is between the owner and me, not between the tennants and the owner.
At this point, I still believe him.
I call domestic worker’s wife, who is busy packing her things. I speak to the owner. No, Kashief did not have permission to sublet, says the owner. He had nothing of the sort. He had the keys illegally. No, the Malawians cannot stay there. No, they cannot even leave their possessions there while they make alternative arrangements. But he’ll be nice. He’ll lock the luggage safely in an enclosed yard at a nearby hotel. Before locking them out.
I call Kashief again. Tell you what, why don’t you just refund the Malawians, and we’ll make alternative arrangements. Sure, he says. He’ll see us there at 7.30.
Unsurprisingly, he calls back. He’ll come later, but he’s realised that he doesn’t have the money available right now. Funny that. It’s all sounding suspiciously… suspicious. I realise at this point that no one is going to get any money back. I realise too that the owner’s suspiciously pretentious English accent is entirely incongruous with his generic Afrikaans name. Which is even more incongruous with the few bits of Islamic decor I’d seen pinned around his (allegedly his father’s) house.
I guess we can write off the money. It’s not anyone’s life savings; it’s not going to leave anyone impoverished forever. I feel utterly shit that it was me that found this fraudulent offer and took it at face value in the first place. The Malawians, of course, will feel it much harder than I will. They have the added stress of having to find a new place having lost the money they’d saved for their rental. And for them, it’s not a day’s salary, it’s two weeks salary or more. It’s tempting to get the guy arrested, but who wants the headache of making police statements? And who wants the potential drama of being targeted by angry criminals?
My Do-Not-Get-Involved voice has gotten a bit louder and stronger this week. My spiritual teachers would caution me against hardening my heart towards our universal invitation to be of service to others. But encountering duplicity – encountering moral corruption – is a disgusting and degrading experience. Brazen, callous lying, cheating, cynicism… it’s different to your common-or-garden white lie or everyday social dissembling. It leaves nauseating residues of disgust, outrage. It breeds mistrust, which an ugly unwanted gift. It was only when that grim sensation of violation rose in my throat this afternoon that I realised that I’d spent most of the last year making gradual progress on letting the very same thing go. I have no desire to invite it back, and I would not wish it on anyone. Please, even when your heart is pure, keep your eyes very very wide open.